Developmental trauma in childhood
A large number of clients who seek counselling or psychotherapy have experienced trauma in some shape or form; most of the time their trauma has been hitherto unacknowledged or it has not been thought of as 'trauma'. Trauma does not have to relate to a single event such as a car accident nor does it have to be about experiences that people often think of as ‘extreme’, for example survival in a war zone or the child sexual abuse.
Any person who has experienced neglect over a long period of time in childhood, witnessed a parent being beaten up on a regular basis, struggled with an alcoholic parent or generally experienced adverse parenting throughout their childhood can be said to have experienced trauma. Often clients do ‘belittle’ their experiences; compared to others they consider themselves to be less deserving of attention and care. Trauma is a deeply subjective emotional experience; there is no objective qualifying means that defines an experience as traumatic. Traumatic experiences are intolerable and are likely to be long lasting. Depending on the age when you first had experiences of trauma it is likely to have a life time effect.
Trauma crosses social boundaries. A child who has been consistently abandoned by their primary caregivers or has never made to feel safe will struggle later on in life to establish trusting relationships. This is true of children who grew up in disorganised households with multiple social issues or in social care as much as it is of so called ‘privileged’ children who were sent away to boarding school at a young age. The latter group may have experienced ‘boarding school syndrome’, a term developed by the psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. The experience shared by traumatised children of both social strata is one of growing up in a world where adults do not provide a safe enough environment or a secure base.
Trauma is embodied. As many of the book titles on trauma would suggest – The Body Keeps the Score, The Body Remembers – memories of trauma are visceral, gut wrenching emotions that impact on people’s auto-immune system. People who have experienced trauma will have an altered nervous systems which responds differently to situations which are perceived as dangerous or threatening.
Generally traumatised people respond to perceived threat with hyperarousal; the body’s fight/flight/freeze responses to perceived danger go into overdrive. This may manifest in a tendency to get angry very easily (fight) or to remove oneself quickly from situations that are perceived to be unsafe (flight). After traumatic experiences the bodily response will often be to freeze. Children who learned early on that their calls for help or comfort did not yield any result or children who could not escape their unsafe environment often learned to cope by shutting down their system into a perpetual state of frozenness where emotions would not be felt anymore.
Trauma impacts on social relationships. Children who have been provided with a secure base will be able to develop secure, nurturing relationships. They will have an internal sense of knowing when to ask others for help and when to rely on themselves. Traumatised children or adults will struggle to feel safe with others; they will tend to avoid relying on others attempting to be fiercely independent or even shy of social contacts altogether. Alternatively they may live in a perpetual fear of abandonment by people close to them.
Rothschild, Babette (2000). The Body Remembers. The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. W. W. Norton & Company.
Schaverien, Joy (2015). Boarding School Syndrome. The psychological trauma of the ‘privileged’ child. Routledge.
Van der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Random House UK.